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Thursday, March 18, 2010


At Boston College I am usually called, “Professor” or “Rabbi.” (Once, I was even called “Father”--Well, I teach in a Catholic College!). However, recently, one of my students wrote me an email addressing me as “Hey.” In another case, a student sent me a note that began with “Dear Rifat.” I was surprised and taken aback. Who are these bad-mannered individuals who dare to address a teacher “Hey” of by his first name? What kind of an upbringing did they have from their parents and other adults? Newspapers often report on how some students disrespect their instructors in the public schools. There is even as association called National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (NAPTA); that is, for abuse by students.

I grew up in a community that demanded high respect for elders and teachers. When I was in High School in Istanbul, we used to stand up when the teacher walked into the classroom. Even in Law School, when the professor entered the lecture hall, the entire class stood on its feet. We never addressed our teachers by their first name. Later on, when I was at the rabbinic seminary and then at my graduate school, we always called our professors by their title. Even now, after so many years, I still call my former teachers, some of whom are my age and a few younger than me, by their academic titles; never by their first name. That does not mean that I liked or loved all my instructors. In fact, some I did not care for, others I feared, and a few I could not stand. But there were others, maybe five or six, who had tremendous influence in my life, and I am who I am because of them. But I always treated all my mentors with respect. That is what I was taught.

Rabbinic literature urges every individual to find a mentor: “Get yourself a teacher” (Avot 1:6). “Revere your teacher as you revere Heaven,” says another source (Avot: 4:15 end). Ancient Rabbis place a teacher on a higher plane than a parent. Thus, they argue, if one finds a lost article belonging to a parent and another to a teacher, the teacher’s article must be returned first” (BM 33a). Though the honor due a teacher is a given in rabbinic literature, the sages also state that the teacher needs to earn this trust and respect: “Let the honor of your disciple be as dear to you as your own,” states one Rabbi (Avot: 4: 15a).

As a teacher I try to emulate the best of my mentors, because I realize that by teaching I am also molding my students’ character. What a high responsibility! I hope you too will always remember your favorite teachers, and bless their name every day.

Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Many people have asked me, “How come you are on Facebook?” “Aren’t you afraid of giving important information about your private life to the world at large?” Here is my answer: I had no intention of getting into Facebook until the leadership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) began to use it in order to give out a few details about last year’s national convention in Israel. If I wanted to know what was happening at these meetings, I had to go to Facebook. I did, and stayed. Similarly, I signed up for Twitter in order to find out what was going on during the popular uprising in Tehran last year. It was uncensored, immediate and heart-wrenching. (I no longer spend much time in Twitter unless there is a major event around the world). I also use Skype to communicate with my friends and family in Spain, Israel, Turkey and Argentina.

A social network such as Facebook comes handy because it allows me to connect with people I care but live far away from me. (I live in the Boston area). That is how I learned about the birth of my cousin’s twins in New York; that is how I comment on aspects of Jewish life to my friends in Barcelona; that is how I respond to queries raised to me from Buenos Aires; that is how I touch base with my Law School friends in Istanbul and Luxemburg. It is quick, personal and effective.

In the biblical world, and until recently, friends and family members lived in the same neighborhood for a long time. People rarely moved- if ever- unless forced by nature or enemies. When the Bible states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), or when Ben Sira writes, “Help your neighbor according to your ability” (29:20), the reference, I believe, is to your next-door friend, or at least, to the member of the same community. It does not mean to your fellow human being. That interpretation came much later when the world got larger through travel, relocation or migration. That is where we are today.

Most of us move constantly from one place to another, willingly or by necessity. In my professional career I have already relocated at least six times, not to mention a move from Istanbul to Cincinnati, or Buenos Aires to Philadelphia. Only one of my high school friends lives in Turkey now. Just a few of my classmates from Law School have remained in Istanbul. Every single colleague from my seminary days in Cincinnati, OH or graduate school in Philadelphia, PA has moved away, and can be found in different parts of the world. How do you keep in touch with them? If keeping bonds are important to you-as they are to me-you have no other choice but to sign up for a social network to renew and maintain long standing friendships. Just don’t give out your social security number.
Rifat Sonsino